Wednesday, November 9, 2016

More Great Music - Concert Band Style

With the approach of the first concert of the year for Wind Ensemble and Jazz Band, I thought I would do another edition on great music that you should all listen to.  This time I am doing a preview of some of the material that the groups will be playing next week.  You should, of course, make sure to come to the concert and hear these tunes in real life, though!  It will happen on Thursday, November 17 at 7:00 p.m. in DeWitt Auditorium.

Though I am not one to always plan a concert around a certain theme, it turns out that the first couple of pieces I chose for the Wind Ensemble to sight read ended up fitting together well.  One of the coolest things about being here for a long time and having a music library that dates back some decades before even my time is that I can program music that I've done in the past that I know will be successful.  It also means we save a little budget money.  And the past few years I've been able to look at lots of the really old stuff and use it for sight-reading to see if it's worth playing at this point.  

So we ended up with a Sousa march, The Glory of the Yankee Navy, and an old, somewhat obscure piece called Tres Danzas de Mexico.  I had never done the Sousa, and never heard of the other.  Well, those two pieces kind of morphed into the theme of "World Tour," so we added an Irish piece by Grundman, an English piece by Grainger (surprise!), and one of my all-time favorites, Variations on a Korean Folk Song.  

Eventually we narrowed those down a bit and ended up with four pieces for next week.  The jazz band will add four of their own, including one with a vocalist from the Varsity Voices, that also fit the world tour idea.

The Wind Ensemble will open with American Overture by Joseph Willcox Jenkins.  This composition evokes the "old west" style of the 1950s and 60s western movies, and was written by Jenkins at the age of 25 for the US Army Band.  Written to feature virtually every section, it is considered a classic composition for French horn players, as it features them throughout.

Percy Grainger is one of my favorite composers for concert band.  His style is definitely old school classic, and he uses all of the colors of the instrument families very effectively.  Written in 1916, The Sussex Mummers' Christmas Carol was originally scored in two versions, one for piano and violin and the other for piano and cello.  There are several band transcriptions of this piece; Larry Clark chose the latter version for his transcription as he felt that setting more exemplified what the modern wind band could accomplish.  I've linked the Goldman version here; perhaps you can compare the two after next week.

Tres Danzas de Mexico by William Rhoads, uses dance music from three Mexican villages in a three-movement suite.  As is common in a suite of anything, the three movements are fast, slow, and fast again.  Each one represents a different folk dance from a particular village.

I usually tell the band the story of my first experience with Variations on a Korean Folk Song.  To this day I can see the middle school band room at West Ottawa, and remember when Mr. Lucas brought the high school band to perform for the middle school classes.  I was in the seventh grade and can see it like it was yesterday; this piece truly is one that helped shape my career.  As the title suggests, it is indeed variations on a theme.  Arirang, the folk song the piece is based on, is sung widely in South Korea.  The melody is introduced softly and calmly by the clarinets, followed by the rest of the woodwind family, and is followed by five distinct variations that feature all of the instrument families - woodwind, brass, and percussion - ending with the full band bringing all of the elements together.  John Barnes Chance did a great job utilizing western instruments and tone colors in this composition.

I've even included this link to the Sousa - we will be performing this in January.  Next time: some jazz favorites from Frank Sinatra!

Monday, November 7, 2016

"How Can I Help My Kid Get Better?" - 2.0 - New Instrument Purchase

The answer to the "how does my kid get better" question can also be applied to question number two: "what brand of new instrument should I buy?"  These questions fit together because sometimes a student simply ends up "outplaying" the instrument you bought several years ago.

Imagine, if you will, a tall man on a small bike.  Like this one, maybe:  
  Sure, he can ride it, but he's obviously too large for it.  The same can be said for musical instruments: the ones kids get in beginning band are made for beginning players.  Student model brass instruments are more free-blowing and have less resistance; woodwinds are set up slightly differently and are made with less expensive materials.  When students get bigger physically it's very possible that they are "overplaying" their instruments.  The instrument no longer responds well due to too much power from the larger, stronger player (think of a very large engine in a Mini Cooper).  This is especially true with trumpets and trombones.  

But...  How much does a new instrument cost?  Where should I buy it?  Are certain brands better than others?  Well:
 - A lot
 - Locally, if possible
 - Absolutely without question

The biggest issue here is obviously expense.  I will be blunt and forthright (I know, you're not used to that at all) and say that you really can't find any instrument of quality, with the exception of used name brands, for less than at least $1,000.00.  And that doesn't include saxophones or many trombones, both of which will cost you considerably more.  The thing to remember, though, is that you are quite literally making a long-term investment - the instrument that I just "replaced" (it's still around and will be forever) was new for me in 1978.  The $475 that my folks spent then obviously paid off.  (Also - be glad your child doesn't play double bass in orchestra.  Just saying...  #mortgagethehouse)

My personal recommendation for places to purchase instruments kind of depends on what you're looking for, but Meyer Music is a good place to start.  They carry many/most of the brands that are high quality and stand behind them with warranty and repair work, etc.  Marshall Music in Grand Rapids is great as well, and both of these stores specialize in school service so they know what students need.  

What about online?  Well, maybe.  I will say that I broke two of my own rules when I bought my new horn: buying online and not trying it before you buy it.  I bought a one-of-a-kind discontinued model (what was I thinking??) after seeing it on the factory's Facebook page.  I made a phone call and they shipped it that afternoon.  No return possible.  But:
 - I have another instrument that I love from that same manufacturer.
 - They are a reputable company and promised to stand behind the product.
 - At that level, there are very few poor instruments, though there are indeed some that work better than others for some players.

"They have a really great deal on new flutes at Costco."  No, they don't.  Seriously.  Not there or anywhere else that is a mass-marketer of all things.  Amazon included.  Reputable manufacturers do not allow their stuff to be sold at places like that.  End of discussion*.
Here are some basic thoughts on buying a new instrument:
  • Try it before you buy it.  If you can't, then don't buy it.  This is why online is risky.  I could have had a week-long trial on any of their stock instruments, with the option of sending it back and trying a different one.  Most reputable sellers will have a similar program - you give them a credit card number and they will ship you something to try.  Online auction sites may not have this option.
  • BEFORE YOU EVEN TRY IT, check with me.  Or Mr. Good.  Or Mrs. Bier.  Mr. Good and I are brass players; we can tell you a lot about brass, and especially trumpets.  Mrs. Bier is our woodwind expert, so questions about those go to her.  Any one of us is willing to help out and even go with you and your family to help you try instruments somewhere (Several years ago I spent a day in northern Indiana with a student and his family and tried out about ten trumpets with him).
    • Want to get really serious?  Try factory direct from the Conn-Selmer plant in Elkhart, IN.  Very cool experience and includes a factory tour, etc.
  • Buying local is ideal, but there is not always a huge selection.  As is the case with many expensive things, there is actually a fairly low mark-up on pro instruments.  Because of this and their relatively high price, the local music stores don't always have a dozen in stock.
    • Why does this matter?  The above-mentioned trumpet player tried out ten of the same model pro instruments.  The tenth one was the one that sounded the very best and felt the best to him.  The funny thing was that we could all tell right away.
    • There are many hand-finished processes in the manufacture of pro-line instruments, and each one is going to play slightly differently than another.
  • As with everything else in the world, there are many and various instrument manufacturers.  And as with everything else, there are tried and true brands that will deliver virtually every time.  My recommendations for brands are
    • Flutes: Yamaha, Gemeinhardt, Pearl
    • Clarinets: Yamaha, Buffet, Selmer
    • Saxophones: Yamaha, Selmer, Cannonball (a good medium horn and a good price)
    • Trumpets and trombones: Bach (Selmer), Yamaha, Getzen
(*Almost the end of the discussion...  BE VERY WARY of names that sound similar to those listed above - they are cheap knock-offs and cannot be trusted.  The names change periodically as well - several years ago SELMAN was selling woodwinds.  Not SELMER.  Be careful.)

What about buying used?  Same basic ideas as new, with the emphasis on trying it before you buy it.  There are some Selmer saxophones, for instance, that are reaching legendary status as the Holy Grail of instruments depending on the years they were made.  A former student bought a 30+ year-old Selmer Mark VI tenor a few years ago for $2000 (a steal), and sold it after college for closer to $3000.  Be wary of things on auction sites; I really like Craigslist, because it's local and you can easily visit the seller and try out the instrument.  

Meyer Music has a pretty sweet deal on step-up instruments that is worth mentioning here: if you have rented a beginning instrument from Meyer and have not paid it off yet, they will give you full credit on what you've paid for rental toward a step-up instrument.  Once it is paid off the trade-in price drops quite a bit, so check out their deals for new horns before you write that final check!

One final thought/caution for parents/purchasers: be aware that for pretty much everyone, a brand new, shiny, sweet-smelling instrument is going to "play better" than the one your child currently has.  Some student model trumpets come with silver plating.  They're still student model trumpets, they just look different.  Please do some research before you make the jump into the next level instrument!

Remember, this is a potentially very expensive lifetime investment.  Don't run out and buy the first thing you try.  And please let me know if you would like any assistance or advice!


    "How Can I Help My Kid Get Better?" - 1.0 - Private Lessons

    This entry goes into the category of "other information that may be helpful."  I decided to write it when I bought a new trumpet last month at the ripe old age of 52...

    I am asked by several parents each year about two things: "what is the best way to make my child a better player?" and "I'd like to buy my child a new instrument; what should I get?"  I will answer these questions, but the details will end up in two different posts due to length and subject matter...

    The number one answer to the first question is "PRIVATE LESSONS."  There is seriously nothing better than one-on-one sessions with an expert on the instrument the student plays; the experience and knowledge gained from this is unmatched in band. 

    It is often somewhat frustrating to hear a student say that he or she has quit taking piano lessons since "I'm in band now and I don't need them any more."  Piano lessons can be a huge supplement to what we do in band and can indeed form a foundation that is vitally important to a musician's overall success.  I often tell people that of all of the things in my life that I would change if given the chance, going back to 8th grade I would change my mind on quitting piano.  Almost daily in my job here at school I could put piano skills to good use.  So if you are paying for piano lessons and it's still in the budget, keep going!  And consider adding lessons on your child's main instrument as well.

    A private, one-on-one lesson situation with an expert on that instrument will really help a student to excel, or even catch up if he or she is behind for some reason.  As a musician I can teach your children musical elements and various ways to improve as a member of a band or orchestra.  As a trumpet player I can teach your child very specific techniques on my major instrument that will help him or her become a better trumpet player.  I cannot do the same thing, really, for any other instrument.  Yes, I "know how to play all the instruments;" I am an expert at one of them.

    And that is why you should consider private lessons.  There are several teachers in the area on most instruments; we are still trying to find a consistent tuba teacher, though!  

    So how do you start?  The easiest, though not necessarily the very best, option is to get in touch with Meyer Music.  They operate a studio right in the store and will take care of scheduling, payment, etc.  They have some fine teachers there, but there are others I'd recommend as well, especially depending on the instrument and/or level of student achievement.

    I can put you in touch with some very qualified instructors for flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet (not just me), French horn, trombone, and percussion.  Baritone and tuba, as mentioned above, are a little more of a challenge, yet those instruments have some very specific needs and lessons would be great!  A trip out of the Holland/Zeeland area might be necessary for this to happen, though.

    What will private lessons accomplish?  As I mentioned, the single most important thing is instrument -specific technique.  The things a private teacher can catch and correct in an individual setting are numerous.  Hand position (imagine, if you will, trying to teach 57 beginning clarinet players how to properly hold a clarinet; yet that is exactly what Mr. Good had to do when this year's sophomores were in 6th grade), embouchure, articulation, etc. are all very unique to each instrument.  Even across the brass section things are not exactly the same: what makes a person a good trumpet player can definitely make that same person a terrible French horn player, for instance.  The embouchure and power for one can have a very negative effect on the other.  

    Private teachers will also teach musicianship, but more through solo playing than the large ensemble setting like we do in band.  The cool thing is that the ideas they learn and work with in private lessons then also transfer to band, and the band as a whole will improve.  Bonus!  

    If you are interested in getting some names of teachers in the area, please let me know.  I do some lessons on an irregular basis, mostly at no charge, but based on my schedule they are very inconsistent.  (In other words, I might not be the trumpet teacher I'd recommend for your kid...)  Send me an email at and we can discuss what you're looking for and see what we can do.


    PTC Edition 11-7-16

    Welcome to Parent/Teacher Conference week!  I am looking forward to meeting new people and seeing those I've met before.  Here are a few things you can do to help streamline the process:

    • Please introduce yourself, even if I've met you a thousand times...  Sometimes my brain just doesn't compute faces and names when I am meeting with different people all day.  This will help me a lot.
    • My first question to parents is usually "what can I tell you about your child?"  Is there anything specific you would like to hear?  You might have something you want to know about, like how he/she is doing socially, or with reading music, or with more specific things.  Grades can be a topic of discussion, but the first nine weeks is based almost entirely on participation since we have so many performances.  But let me know what you want to know!
    • I will probably ask parents of freshmen how things are going overall with high school, and specifically in band, so check in with your children and see what they're thinking.
    • I will be in my office in the band room for all three conference days.  Feel free to come into the room and walk around and get a feel for where your child spends a significant amount of time.  I will try to have the place cleaned up so it looks good!  
    • Your children are more than welcome to attend with you.
    • If things are busy and crowded, feel free to leave me a note and we can set up a time to meet in the future if you feel the need for that.
    Remember that conference hours are Monday 4 - 7 p.m., Wednesday 2 - 5 p.m., and Thursday 2 - 8 p.m.  Looking forward to seeing you!